You had to feel sorry for Mongolia this past week. Officials there must have been excited about the visit of national security adviser John Bolton, the first high-level U.S. official to travel there since then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry hailed the strategically crucial country nestled between China and Russia as an “oasis of democracy” in 2016. But in Washington this week, Mongolia was treated like the punch line of an anti-Bolton joke.
Virtually all the U.S. media coverage portrayed (unfairly) Bolton’s trip to Ulaanbaatar as nothing but a humiliating insult for him and a sure sign that President Trump had cast him to the darkness. Many commentators noted that the president brought Tucker Carlson to the Korean Peninsula for his photo-op with Kim Jong Un, another perceived snub to Bolton. When the National Security Council tried to explain that Bolton’s trip was scheduled a month ago and represented an important opportunity to bolster relations with a key ally, reporters laughed it off as an excuse.
When not taking cheap shots at Bolton, the media spent most of its time this past weekend taking Ivanka Trump to task (this time, fairly) for photobombing Group of 20 events, giving her own video readouts of the president’s bilateral meetings with world leaders and sneaking across the North Korean border with both her father and husband to say it was “surreal.” (Full disclosure: I once snuck across the border into North Korea for a photo, but I wasn’t a senior White House official.)
While Ivanka was playing at foreign policy, Bolton was conducting foreign policy. He met with the president, prime minister, the foreign minister, the defense minister, the Mongolian ambassador to Washington, the speaker of their parliament and other officials. Bolton was following the lead of his mentor, former secretry of state James Baker, who realized decades ago the importance of U.S. engagement in Mongolia.
Bolton was actually doing the thing Democrats and other Trump critics are always complaining this administration doesn’t do — namely, bolstering relationships with democratic allies we need onside to deal with the challenges of China and Russia. Here’s the country that’s literally in between them, but still calls the United States its “third neighbor.”
There is important business to be done in Mongolia. There is a trade relationship that Congress has been pushing to deepen. Mongolia is a NATO partner country, the same as Japan and South Korea. The Mongolians deployed troops in Iraq and have troops serving in Afghanistan together with U.S. forces now. It’s an open society struggling to maintain its sovereignty and identity while surrounded by the world’s two greatest authoritarian powers.
Bolton could have canceled last minute and joined the party at the demilitarized zone. That surely wouldn’t have prevented the rampant speculation that the Trump-Kim meeting signaled a defeat for Bolton’s drive to push a harder line vis-à-vis Pyongyang. But serious, honest analysts should give the Trump administration officials credit when they do something right. And here, the right move was for Bolton to honor his commitment and pay Mongolia’s leaders the basic respect they deserved.
That’s not to say he did everything right. On the way back, Bolton couldn’t resist tweeting about a New York Times story that claimed unnamed administration officials were considering a plan to accept a freeze of North Korea’s nuclear programs as an interim step toward denuclearization. Bolton’s call for “consequences” for the leakers overwhelmed his Mongolia message and fed the notion that he came down with a serious case of FOMO, or the fear of missing out.
All administrations are torn between the urgent and the important. But five years from now, it’s very likely that Trump’s handshake with Kim, like his entire North Korea diplomacy, will have amounted to little more than some great television moments. Mongolia’s importance to the United States will certainly be even greater than it is now. Bolton was investing in something substantial rather than attending something superficial.
Of course, the leaders of Mongolia just wanted to show the world that the U.S.-Mongolia relationship is strong. Instead, they became collateral damage and the butt of jokes because Bolton is an easy target and something else happened that day in another country that was deemed bigger news.
To our Mongolian friends, on behalf of those Americans who believe the U.S.-Mongolian partnership is worth showing up for, please accept our apologies.